December: Lawmaker contacts shouldn’t be secret

2013 Columns

Sandy Whisler was surprised to see her name appear on the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial page — not in a letter to the editor, which she sometimes writes, but in a Nov. 20 editorial.

Whisler, a retired educator in Lake Mills, had emailed four state legislators urging them to hold hearings on proposed bills to create a nonpartisan process for legislative redistricting —  the redrawing of voter boundaries after every ten-year Census. The arguments against this change, she mused, “must be weak if you fear a public discussion.”

The State Journal, which has been calling for these hearings for months, along with other state media, quoted from this and other contacts obtained by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism through open records requests. (For links to these records, see

Scott Milfred, the State Journal’s editorial page editor, has heard no complaints from the people whose emails the paper quoted. Whisler, after her initial surprise, didn’t mind a bit: “I’m proud to have my name used to say, ‘You need to listen to the public.’ ”

All four lawmakers blacked out personal information like email addresses, home addresses and phone numbers. Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin went further, redacting names and places of residence from the 200 contacts she released.

Lazich, asked for an explanation, wrote that citizens “must have total freedom to contact me on issues of concern to them” and claimed releasing personal information would “chill free speech and debate in the legislative process.”

Leave aside the question of whether Lazich is really driven by concern for these correspondents, whose mostly polite and heartfelt calls for hearings she has thus far rebuffed. There is a broader issue: the public has a right to know who is saying what to elected officials.

In 2011, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, used the same arguments in purging the names of people who wrote him regarding changes to state insurance law. Nygren, to his credit, ultimately backed down, and the belatedly released names showed that two-thirds were insurance agents or industry employees.

In another case, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is being sued by a conservative group for purging identifiers from emails he received over the collective bargaining issue. He won at the trial court level, but that decision is being appealed.

State legislators are already exempt from the records retention rules in place for all other state and local officials. Thus state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was able to legally delete dozens of the emails he received on redistricting — those from people who did not clearly live in his district.

But blacking out “Sandy Whisler” and “Lake Mills” is another matter. An email to a lawmaker stripped of its author’s name is like an unsigned letter to the editor — which, absent some compelling reason for anonymity, most papers would not print.

Says Ginnie Kester, a Madison resident whose name Lazich redacted, “I wouldn’t have written it if I wanted privacy.”

The state Justice Department, charged with interpreting the open records law, is not involved in the ongoing litigation over this issue. It has advised at training sessions that “constituent names generally should be disclosed unless the balancing test applied on individual circumstances indicates that withholding or redaction is appropriate,” says DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck.

Lazich’s redactions run contrary to this advice, and to the spirit of openness that has elsewhere served the state well. In most cases, citizens like Sandy Whisler are and should be proud of the positions they take in their contacts with elected officials. There’s no need to keep their identities secret.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, a reporter with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, is the group’s president.